I’ve read a number of books on the blues, and listened to hours and hours of the music, going back to the early recordings of Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, through to the Great Migration north from the fields of Mississippi to Chicago, where Muddy Waters played those traditional blues on an electric guitar and changed everything. This section is more of my short history lesson on the blues as I learned about the music. There are many different genres within blues and the artists that followed in the footsteps of these pioneers — Texas blues of Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top, and West Coast blues of Robert Cray. There’s Delta blues with Bonnie Raitt, Memphis blues with Elvis and Aretha Franklin, Piedmont Blues with Keb’ Mo’, Jump blues with Brian Setzer, Harmonica blues with Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield, Funk blues with Robert Randolph, and Country blues from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
Johnson is the original. The father of them all. Nearly all of rock music, from Buddy Holly, to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and everyone after, can trace a line back to Robert Johnson. A master of the guitar and the Delta Blues of Mississippi, Johnson was said to have become a great bluesman because he sold his soul to the devil at a mythical crossroad somewhere between Memphis and Clarksdale, Miss. Johnson died at the age of 27, with only four years’ worth of recording, which only added to his legend. But the songs he recorded, such as “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Cross Road Blues,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and “Love in Vain” would go on to influence the first rock and roll acts and continue to inspire artists today. Johnson only recorded 11 records in his lifetime. A 1961 re-release of his work brought him back into view, and the 1991 “Complete Recordings” gave him wide recognition.
ARTHUR 'BIG BOY' CRUDUP
One of the earliest blues influences after Robert Johnson, Crudup was from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and recorded song “That’s All Right,” which was the first record that Elvis Presley had made into a record. Crudup also wrote and recorded songs such as “Mean Old Frisco Blues,” “Who’s Been Foolin’ You,” and “So Glad You’re Mine,” which have been covered by artists like Elton John, Rod Stewart and many others. He has sometimes been called the “Father of Rock and Roll.”
In the first half of the 20th century, there was a great migration of the black population from the rural South to the northern urban cities of the United States to escape the restrictive “Jim Crow” laws that were in place. During the 30s through the 50s, many of the great Delta bluesmen made their way to Chicago. Muddy Waters was one of the first to arrive, and within a few years started recorded for brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. At the same time, Waters discarded the old acoustic guitar for the new electric version so he could be heard over the large, loud club crowds. He had created the Chicago blues sound, and would go on to have some of the biggest blues hits like “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Mannish Boy,” and “I’m Ready.”
The first stars of the blues were the great female singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who worked blues songs into their vaudeville or stage shows. Many of the songs had been written by W.C. Handy, who was one of the first to put the slave work songs on paper and into compositions. In fact, it was Rainey who early in the century took a song about a woman who lost her man, and dubbed it a “blues” song. Bessie Smith followed in the 1920s, touring the country and becoming the highest-paid black artist of the 1920s. Another singer, Mamie Smith, recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, which sold 75,000 copies in one month. Memphis Minnie recorded “When the Levee Breaks,” in 1929 (it was written by her husband), nearly 50 years before Led Zeppelin sang it. Vaudeville began to die out, taking blues music with it in favor of swing music. As the great blues artists moved north out of the South in the 1950s and 60s, there was a revival of the genre, and women again were involved. As blues was incorporated into rock and roll, where now a direct line can be drawn to Koko Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Shemekia Copeland and Lizzo.
Like Otis Spann, Little Walter Jacobs was a major part of the Chicago Blues sound, and was known as the finest harmonica (harp) player of his era. He left home at the age of 12, and by 15 was in Chicago. Having to compete now with electric guitars, Little Walter began cupping a microphone in his hands as he played to get the harp sound out. He pushed amplifiers to their limits and the distorted harmonica sound added a new element to the electric blues. After getting his start in Chicago on the famous Maxwell Street, Little Walter eventually began working with artists at Chess Records. His first song as a frontman was “Juke,” which became the first harmonica instrumental to reach No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart, spending eight weeks there and becoming Little Walter’s signature track.
This quartet of hard-playing guitarists all arrived in Chicago in the 1950s and dominated the blues scene in the city, especially in the west-side blues clubs, eventually creating a specific blues sub-genre, West Side Chicago Blues. They began to blur the line between traditional blues and rock. Magic Sam was an early star with the 1967 album “West Side Soul,” but his career ended with his death at 32 in 1969. Rush and Allison had prolific and influential careers, but it was Buddy Guy who stood out, as he continues to perform today into his 80s, and often takes the stage at his club “Buddy Guy’s Legends” in Chicago. Starting as a studio guitarist at Chess Records behind the likes of Muddy Waters, Guy outdueled Magic Sam and Otis Rush for a recording contract. But Guy’s style was deemed too wild for the conservative Chess, and Guy went out on his own. He re-emerged in the 80s and 90s with an evolved style that again pushed the envelope of the blues sound, culminating with 1991’s “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” which won a Grammy in 1992. He added Grammys in 1994 and 1996. More Grammys followed in 2001, 2004 and 2011. HIs 2015 album “Born to Play Guitar” earned the 80-year-old the 2016 Grammy for best blues album, his seventh Grammy award. On a personal note, I have seen Buddy Guy perform live several times, and he can still bring the energy as the elder statesmen of the blues.
The “King of the Blues,” B.B. King was born Riley King, but as a performer in Memphis became known as “Beale Street Blues Boy,” which became just “Blues Boy,” and eventually just “B.B.” Born in Mississippi in 1925, B.B. King performed well into his 80s, spanning the early Delta blues, through Memphis and Chicago, to mainstream modern performer. He became nationally-known with his first hit “3 O’Clock Blues” in 1952, then spent the next half century touring. He played 342 concerts in 1956, and was still playing 200 nights a year into his 70s. His 1970 hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” was one of the first blues songs to chart on both the R&B and pop ratings. King’s unique solo style on his signature guitar, named “Lucille” inspired the great rock guitar players who followed as they built on their own solo styles, particularly Eric Clapton. Clapton and King worked together often, and King crossed over and reached a new audience when he collaborated with the superband U2 on 1988’s “When Love Comes to Town” on U2’s album “Rattle and Hum.” B.B. King is also one of just two of these blues legends I have seen perform in person (along with Buddy Guy). I saw him at three concerts before his death in 2015
Spann came to Chicago from Mississippi at the age of 16 and quickly became the best blues pianist in the city. He played with just about every major blues musician of the day, and was part of Muddy Waters’ “Supergroup.” He would go on to also work with modern blues artists such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and the early Fleetwood Mac. He died in 1970 at the age of 40.
JOHN LEE HOOKER
Like so many of his contemporaries, Hooker grew up a son of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, where he learned to play guitar. Unlike others at this time, Hooker did not immediately head to Chicago, but honed his sound on Beale Street in Memphis, then went to Detroit looking for work. He had an early hit with “Boogie Chillen’” in 1948. Though he could not read or write, Hooker compiled a number of original songs and adapted old blues standards into his more modern sound and his own unique style. Hooker returned to the public eye with an appearance in the movie “The Blues Brothers” in 1980. At the age of 78, Hooker released the album “The Healer” that included collaborations with Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt, among others. That same year, he performed a number of times with Van Morrison, and later with the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton.
BIG BILL BROONZY
Along with Robert Johnson, Broonzy was one of the original founding fathers of blues music. Born around the turn of the century, Broonzy learned to play on a homemade guitar. He was a sharecropper and preacher in Arkansas when he was drafted in the Army in World War I. When he returned from service, he decided to move to Chicago to look for work. He bounced around at day jobs and played music at events at night. He made a few recordings, but they did not sell well. Broonzy continued to refine his sound, taking traditional folk songs and spirituals into a more urban blues sound. Along the way, he built a catalog of more than 300 songs, many of which have become standards and covered by blues artists that followed, such as Muddy Waters. He was also an influence on later rock acts like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who recorded Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway” along with the group Derek and the Dominos on their album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”
Another of the greats to migrate from Mississippi to Chicago, Dixon went on to become the most prolific blues songwriter of the era. A championship boxer in his early years in Chicago, Dixon went back to music as a bass player with various jazz groups. He eventually landed at Chess records where he served as a studio musician, songwriter and talent scout. Along the way, Dixon worked with nearly every major blues artist in Chicago, and was one of the most important figures in the development of the Chicago Blues sound. He was a major figure in bringing the blues sound into rock music, working initially with crossover artists Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly, and later having his songs covered by rock’s biggest names, including the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
Another of the great Chicago blues musicians, Wells arrived from Memphis as a 14-year-old in 1948 as a skilled harmonica player, taught by his cousin Junior Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Wells was also influenced by harp legend Little Walter, and eventually replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters’ band. His best-known single is “Messin’ with the Kid,” released in 1960. Wells collaborated with Buddy Guy on the classic album “Hoodoo Man Blues,” and the two also worked with the Rolling Stones in the 70s. He remained active with his music until his death in 1998.
Known as the “King of the Slide Guitar,” James was influenced early on by fellow Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson. There is some dispute whether Johnson or James wrote the song “Dust My Broom,” which became James’ best-known song. James also wrote several other blues standards such as “The Sky is Crying,” “Done Somebody Wrong,” and “Shake Your Moneymaker,” all of which have been covered by numerous modern individuals and groups. His unique sound did not come from the new electric sound, but from a modified acoustic. It was of specific influence of some of the biggest hits of The Allman Brothers.
NEXT GENERATION BLUES ARTISTS